Internet Activists Rally Behind Former Sheriff in Congressional Race

Richard Mack, a former sheriff challenging Rep. Lamar Smith in Texas' 21st Congressional District, speaks at a Phoenix event last year. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

By Forrest Burnson
For Reporting Texas

Rep. Lamar Smith, who ascended to the chair of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee by looking out for traditional Republican interests, has run afoul of the party’s libertarian grassroots with his attempt to bolster copyright law.

Smith, a 25-year incumbent in Central Texas’ 21st Congressional District, faces a rare primary challenge from a newly minted Texan, who has built a campaign around his opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act. In return, Internet activists are lending their support to this unlikely figure: former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack.

On Jan. 18, several major websites, including Wikipedia’s English site and Reddit, blacked themselves out in protest of SOPA, prompting a public outcry that caused the House Judiciary committee to postpone plans to draft the bill. Still, some have expressed concern that the bill’s provisions will be reintroduced under a different name. Opponents of the bill – largely Internet activists – have since been targeting its authors and supporters, funding the campaigns of their electoral opponents in retribution.

The bill, which aimed to combat online piracy of copyrighted material, was supported by entertainment organizations such as the Motion Picture Association of America. Lobbyists and interest groups that pushed for SOPA are some of Smith’s biggest campaign contributors. Between 2009 and 2011 Smith received $411,349 from these groups, according to the nonpartisan congressional research organization MapLight. Critics of the bill have said that it would unduly limit the constitutional rights of free speech and due process, giving unprecedented power to the federal government to shut down websites that violate the bill’s provisions.

Enter Mack, who moved from Arizona to Fredericksburg last year and has since filed to run for Smith’s seat in congress. The staunchly libertarian lawman has been capitalizing on the online community’s opposition toward to the bill, using it as a rallying cry against Smith, who has typically run unopposed in the primary races of his 12 terms in congress.

“The American people have asked that the federal government reduce its size and scope, and the next thing you know, this supposedly conservative Republican authors legislation to increase the power of the federal government immensely,” Mack said in an interview in late January.

Across the nation, activists are mustering support for Mack’s campaign. Outraged by SOPA, Jeremy Goodall, 32, and Bob Clarke, 29, decided to join the campaign as staffers in order to help defeat Rep. Smith during the primary race. But Goodall and Clarke don’t live in Texas’ 21st Congressional District – they don’t even live in Texas. Hailing from Colorado Springs, the two libertarian-leaning political consultants assist the campaign by raising awareness and soliciting contributions on the Internet.

“I decided the best way to communicate my distaste for SOPA and other bills like it was to go after its figurehead in D.C.,” Goodall said. “That figurehead is Lamar Smith.”

On Reddit, a popular social news aggregator website that is considered to have a generally liberal-leaning audience, congressional candidates who have voiced opposition to SOPA have succeeded in raising campaign contributions from these activists or people opposed to SOPA. For example, the Democrat challenger to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI 1), Rob Zerban, raised more than $20,000 in about a week after asking for contributions on Reddit. Ryan changed his stance and has come out against SOPA.

Mack, a former sheriff of Graham County, Ariz., drew national attention when he and a group of other sheriffs challenged the constitutionality of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, leading to the repeal of several of the bill’s provisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997. After eight years as sheriff, initially elected as a Democrat, Mack moved to Utah and made an unsuccessful bid for Utah County sheriff in 1998. In 2006, Mack ran as the Libertarian candidate for the U.S. Senate in Arizona, garnering 3 percent of the vote. He moved to Fredericksburg less than a year ago to work with the town’s local tea party group, though he says he never intended to run for Smith’s seat in congress until people asked him to.

“I’m probably more of a Texan than Lamar Smith is when it comes to knowing and understanding state sovereignty and independence,” Mack said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think it matters where I’ve lived. What matters is what I know about the Constitution and the proper role of government.”

Some of Mack’s positions may turn off some supporters, such as his unwavering support for gun ownership rights and his adamant defense of Arizona’s controversial immigration law that was passed by the state’s legislature in 2010. The bill gave local law enforcement the power to detain or arrest individuals suspected of being undocumented immigrants.

Conversely, the conservative constituency of the 21st District may be turned off by some of  Mack’s more libertarian positions. A former undercover narcotics officer, Mack now opposes the war on drugs and is in favor of legalization.

Recognizing that some more liberal-leaning opponents of SOPA – particularly those who congregate on Reddit – might be hesitant to support a candidate with such a conservative record, Clarke argues they need see the broader picture.

“For someone who is very liberal, your options are the candidate you hate who wants to mess with the Internet, or the candidate you hate who wants to keep the Internet free,” Clarke said.

The two consultants believe it’s a pragmatic decision for Internet activists to get behind Mack, as Smith is considered unbeatable against any Democratic opponent in this largely conservative district, which encompasses parts of San Antonio, Austin, and several rural counties in central Texas. Smith, who typically votes with the party line in congress, has never faced a serious contender in a general election.

“He’s only vulnerable in the primary,” Goodall said.

Some liberal-leaning Reddit users have expressed their support for Mack, despite some ideological differences.

“Man, I like the cut [of this] dude’s jib and I am liberal Freethinker from the Guadalupe valley,” said Reddit user “ranscot” in a thread discussing Mack’s candidacy.

The ongoing redistricting battle in Texas has added an unusual flair to this election cycle. After federal judges in San Antonio rejected the new electoral maps drawn by the Texas legislature, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling. As a result, the primary elections in Texas will be delayed until the legislature and the lower court can reach an agreement. The Republican primary, originally held in March, may be pushed back as late as June, giving Mack more time to campaign and raise money. And he’s not complaining.

“The longer it goes, the better off I am,” said Mack, whose website has benefited in the past week with upgrades from anti-SOPA activists. In the past couple of weeks, Mack has raised nearly $10,000, mostly from online supporters.

Though Mack’s online clout is growing, Smith’s campaign doesn’t seem too worried.

“Congressman Smith finds it amusing to have his conservatism called into question by a man who’s only served as a Democrat, lost as a Democrat, a Republican and twice as a Libertarian, and who staunchly advocates for legalizing drugs and quitting the war on drugs,” said Mike Asmus, Smith’s campaign manager.

Goodall waved off the dig at his candidate. “Beating Lamar Smith in the primary means that the chief architect of SOPA has to walk the halls of Congress for over nine months as an object lesson,” Goodall said.

Forcing a lame-duck Smith “to walk that halls of Congress for over nine months,” Goodall said, would underscore “that the Internet can and will remove you from positions of power if you stand against freedom.”

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